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Why we need to keep talking about Keystone

With an imminent decision by U.S. President Barack Obama on the Keystone XL pipeline, proponents on both sides of the project are wasting no time keeping the pressure on. And so they shouldn't. The public debate is necessary.

This week, the New York Times and one of its prominent columnists came out against the project, stirring all sorts of emotions as talk of the pipeline often does.

In an editorial, the newspaper's message was loud and clear and spoke directly to the president: "He should say no, and for one overriding reason: A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem," the Times opined.

In itself, the pipeline "will not push the world into a climate apocalypse," but will continue to fuel an appetite for oil and add to the atmosphere's carbon load. "There is no need to accept it,” the editorial ended.

Around the same time, well-known journalist Thomas Friedman wrote "I hope the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?)" But because he probably won't, Friedman acknowledged, opponents should "go crazy" and line up with a long list of demands should the project get the green light.

"I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change," Friedman wrote. Pretty effective imagery, and not entirely lost.

The positions come after a draft report by the U.S. State Department earlier this month declared there would be little impact from Keystone XL, which would deliver some 830,000 barrels per day of largely oilsands crude to U.S. markets, on global warming.

Enter the editorials and opinions in support of the project, as well as the endless lobbying efforts. This week, former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice -- he's now a senior executive at CIBC, but at one point handled the environment portfolio -- urged Obama to approve the pipeline, saying it is in U.S. national interest.

(Let us forget for a moment the drama over NDP-led Thomas Mulcair's stance on the pipeline, and the Conservatives' so-called damage control)

But will any single editorial, or even a series of editorials and columns, sway the outcome? Probably not. But that doesn't mean the headlines shouldn't stop flowing on such a controversial topic to help inform a decision.

Take for example the recent New York Times editorial. One must assume the views of an editorial are probably held by some members of the Obama administration, says Paul Knox, a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and former international affairs columnist at the Globe and Mail.

"Obviously the New York Times is an influential voice of Liberal opinion in the United States and these positions are not simply made up," he says.

But neither are the positions of, say, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post made up from thin air, says Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers. Both newspapers have in editorials endorsed the project.

"You're not going to convince 100 per cent of the people. It doesn't matter what issue you're looking at. You can only tell your story well and hope that reasonable people and a thoughtful process will prevail," he says.

Stuck in the middle is a president trying to juggle the interest of the economy and environment, says prominent economist David Rosenberg.

"I don't think an editorial of any particular newspaper is going to have any influence at all on the ultimate decision," says Rosenberg, chief economist at wealth management firm Gluskin Sheff + Associates.

"It's going to come down to a lot of thought given to the sizeable economic benefits measured against what environmental safeguards need to be put into place," he adds.